MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
A third of the way along the wide valley which ramped up to Santbech Crater’s southern rim, their lone Paladin pulled to a stop. Ahead, the double line of hills flanking the valley closed in and the rim mountains rose, with only a narrow notch to mark the pass.
Mike’s reddish-brown head appeared at the top of the ladder. “I need a command decision here.”
Sergeant Hendricks glanced over at Jack.
Imogene looked too, and bit her lip. The wolf had put his helmet back on and seemed to be asleep. He’d been having trouble concentrating, and after checking him over, Bruce said he might have a mild concussion. There wasn’t much they could do about it, other than let him rest.
Grimacing, Sergeant Hendricks unfastened his restraints and climbed partway up the ladder. “What’s the problem?”
“It looks like there’s a battle going on up ahead,” said Mike. “See those flashes just below the pass? Could be EMP rounds, or maybe HEAT. Somebody’s got a radio jammer running, too. We’ll need to be right on top of them before we can ask what’s going on.”
“Hm.” There was quiet while the Sergeant thought. “This is out of my field. What do you think?”
“Well, we can get over on the east side of the valley, then crawl north along the foothills and hope we get an idea of the situation before someone with a better scope decides to shoot us.”
Imogene shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Sneaking unannounced into a combat zone was a good way to get shot by your own troops, especially since they were behind PAF lines.
“Could we retreat and circle around to one of the other passes?” the Sergeant asked.
Mike’s face twisted. “Yeah, thing is though, the south entrance is the most sheltered. If they’re here, they’re probably everywhere.”
The Sergeant shrugged. “Do what you think is best. Falling back and waiting is an option, too.”
“And hope the big rocks keep missing us? No thanks.” Mike settled back into his seat. “You all better strap in, things might get bumpy.”
Things did indeed get bumpy. Mike and his crew were good at what they did, and took the crawler lurching and bouncing northward, utilizing every scrap of the barren landscape’s scant cover.
Imogene cinched her restraints tight and concentrated on not getting sick.
They crept to the top of a low ridge the better part of an hour later, close enough now for the Paladin’s sensors to give them a clear view.
“It’s a battle all right,” Mike drawled. “Looks like our guys have pulled back into the pass. PAF bastards will have a hell of a time rooting them out of there.”
Sergeant Hendricks was once more partway up the connecting ladder. “Assuming they want to capture the base. If not, all they need to do is get some laser artillery up there long enough to bring down the defense screen. Then they can lob enough antimatter into the crater to make sure no one’s coming out alive.”
“You think they’ll use tactical annihilation weapons? They’re about as dangerous to the user as the target.”
“I don’t know,” the Sergeant said. “See that group hanging back on the left flank? You can’t quite tell, but they sure look like Cobra launchers to me.”
Imogene shuddered. The long-bodied PAF missile carriers had only one purpose: to neutralize deeply buried installations. If the attacking force included them, they had no intention of capturing Santbech intact.
Mike peered at the scope. “Could be. Either way, we’re cut off from the base.” He turned to the Sergeant. “What do you want to do?”
Sergeant Hendricks slowly shook his head. “Let’s see if—”
Something struck the Paladin’s flank, shredding metal and knocking the crawler flying.
Imogene’s helmet slammed against the wall and she saw stars. The vehicle spun through a sickening barrel-roll, then struck the ground and started to tumble down the hillside.
Ripped from their restraints, several of the squad joined the Sergeant in a tangle of limbs. Gray-armored bodies crashed against each other, as well as the walls, floor, and their still seated comrades.
The butt of a rifle grazed Imogene’s nose, then spun away. Faintly through her blast-deafened ears, she heard someone yelling. Louder was the menacing hiss of escaping atmosphere. Her suit sensed the pressure drop and her visor snapped shut.
She wasn’t sure how long they tumbled. The lights had failed and the spinning seemed to go on and on, until at last the crawler came to rest upside down and tilted forward at a shallow angle.
Hanging from her restraints in the dark, it took a moment to remember how to turn on her headlamp. It clicked on, throwing cold light over a mass of twisted metal filling the aft end of the compartment. Her suit’s ambient pressure gauge read zero. She glanced at Jack, making sure his primitive fishbowl helmet was sealed tight. Mike and his crew had the same type. Hopefully they’d sealed up in time, too.
The yelling stopped, and the silence pressed in against her. “Is everyone okay?” It was a lame question, but something drove her to speak.
Her words broke the spell, letting forth a flood of overlapping babble.
Across the compartment, Alexei fumbled with his seat restraints. They parted suddenly and he floated free, drifting down to join the jumble of weapons and equipment covering the compartment’s ceiling.
“All right! All right!” Bruce shouted. “Everybody quiet down. Sarge? Are you reading?”
The chatter died away, but no answer came.
Bruce cursed. “Everybody sound off. Bruce here, and okay.”
Imogene struggled with her own seat restraints, but paused to report. “Imogene, all right.”
“Victor here,” the big cat’s voice rasped through gritted teeth. “My leg’s messed up. Bleeding.”
Imogene’s gaze jerked to Victor’s seat and found it empty. He must have been thrown loose.
Lauren, Alexei and Jack all checked in, while in the crew cabin, Mike said the other two were dead. Everyone had freed themselves from their restraints now, and did their best to stay out of Bruce’s way as he examined Victor.
“Fiona, okay.” The polar bear was the last to report. “The Sergeant’s over here. Dead. One of the duffel straps got twisted around his helmet and kept the faceplate open.”
Imogene’s chest tightened. She hadn’t known Mike’s crew, but the Sergeant was her friend. Just as much as poor Ryan, if in a gruffer way.
If the Sergeant were dead, that left Jack and Mike as the only ones with more than a month or two experience up here. A leaden brick settled in her guts. The wolf and wolverine were good enough at what they did, but neither one gave her the confidence Sergeant Hendricks had. He always knew what to do. How to do it.
After a heavy silence, Fiona cleared her throat. “How’s Victor?”
“He hurts like hell,” Victor grunted before Bruce could answer.
Kneeling by Victor’s side, Lauren whimpered and squeezed his hand tighter.
Bruce shook his head. “It’s not good. A shard of what looks like the airlock door is broken off in his armor’s knee joint, and continued bleeding means it went deep. If it doesn’t stop, we can cinch his femoral tourniquet tight, but then he might lose the whole leg.” He glanced up from Victor. “Mike, the survival tent is in the outside locker, right?”
Mike’s dark eyes flicked to the ruined mess where the airlock had been. “Yeah. Assuming it’s not mangled in with the rest of our tail end.”
“And good luck getting to it anyway,” Bruce shook his head again. “I gave him some painkillers, but without atmosphere there’s not much more I can do.”
Imogene’s heart twisted. They couldn’t just let him die. Not Victor.
Lauren jerked her head up. “What do you mean you can’t do anything? You’re supposed to be trained for this!”
Bruce sighed. “Look, in the back of his knee like that there’s a good chance it nicked an artery. I can’t fix that with him in a suit, and he’ll asphyxiate if we take it off. Frankly, he’s lucky the suit membrane managed to reseal around something that big.”
“It didn’t,” Victor’s voice had grown weaker. “I’m showing a slow leak.”
“Shit!” Bruce rummaged in his kit after a canister of emergency sealant. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Victor chuckled. “I don’t think it’s gonna matter. There’s an awful lot of blood in here.”
Lauren looked down at him, tightening her grip on his hand. “Damn it, Bruce, do something!”
“What?” he shouted back. “You want to pull him out of his suit and try to fix him, be my guest!”
She snarled, gathering for a lunge at the stag. But Victor still held her hand, and wouldn’t let go. She let out a frustrated yowl and collapsed beside him, folding herself into a ball around the wounded feline’s hand.
Imogene’s gaze darted around the compartment. There had to be something they could do. There was always something you could do. She had to believe that. Neither the engine compartment nor the tiny refresher would hold pressure. What they really needed was to summon help and get Victor into an undamaged vehicle.
She turned to Mike. “Did we get into comm range? Can we call for help?”
“No. Even if we were, the whole power system’s offline. We’re dead in the water.”
She licked her lips. “Then we need to get out. Try and find the tent, or walk until we can raise someone on our suit comms.” She glanced at the compartment’s rear again. “The airlock’s a write off. Is there another way out?”
“There’s an escape hatch on top of the crew cabin. Probably jammed, though, with us upside down.” He turned and clambered down into the inverted cockpit.
Imogene followed. The helmetless bodies of the other two crewmen hung strapped into their seats, and after one stomach twisting glimpse of their grossly swollen features, she kept her gaze locked on Mike.
He undogged a small hatch in what was now the compartment’s floor. It fell open a centimetre or so, then stuck. He stomped down on the hatch with one boot, but it resisted his efforts.
Imogene stopped him when he moved to kick it a third time. “Can it open in?”
The wolverine’s ears flattened in disgust. “No, blast it. And the cutting torch is in the outside locker, right next to the tent.”
“Can we take apart the hinge?”
“Not from in here.”
The two of them stared down at the hatch. The others chattered over the comm, but Imogene tuned them out. She had an idea, but needed to think it through.
Before she could finish, Bruce stuck his head into the ladder way. “Any luck in here? Alexei and I have been prying at the mess where the airlock was, but it’s solid.”
“Maybe.” Imogene looked up at him. “You’re sure the other way’s hopeless?”
“More or less. What do you have in mind?”
“We can blow up the hatch.”
There was silence, then, “Is that safe? With us in here?” Bruce asked.
“I’ll admit it’s not great, but with all the air gone we should be okay. And it sure beats waiting on the off chance someone comes to rescue us.”
“Yeah,” he drew the word out slowly. “If you think it’s safe, I guess it’s the best thing going.”
Imogene nodded and unfastened her armored backpack.
Where most of her squadmates’ packs carried only ammunition and EVA rations, fully half of hers was devoted to a selection of explosives, detonating devices, and other demolitions paraphernalia.
She studied the problem with a critical eye. Probably best to cut the hatch free from its hinges; no point blowing a new hole when you already had one. The hinge was on the outside, which made things a little harder, but five minutes, two linear shaped charges, and a remote detonator later, she was ready.
Imogene climbed into the main compartment and waved everyone to the back. “All set? They’re small charges, shouldn’t be more than a flash of light.” At least she hoped so. She’d done some live-fire training on Earth, but this was the first real test of her skills. She glanced down at Victor. Now wasn’t the time to fail.
“Here we go.” She flipped off the remote’s safety cover, then hit the button. A tremor ran through the vehicle—just enough to tickle her hooves. In the silent vacuum, that was her only indication anything had happened.
Flicking the safety back on, she smiled tightly. “Not even a flash. No problem.”
Down in the crew cabin, a charred crack marked where the charges had done their job, neatly shearing the hatch from its hinge. A spark of pride rose in Imogene’s chest as she pulled the now unsecured hatch out of its frame. Paint burned off her suit’s fingers as she grasped the freshly cut edge, but she paid it no mind.
The others crowded around the top of the ladder and stared down with her at the open hatch. Or rather, at the gray dust and gravel clogging the space just outside.
Imogene’s shoulders sagged. “Great. Now what?”
Alexei snorted. “Now we dig. It can’t be that far to the edge of the crawler.” He climbed down beside her and set to work.
She watched for a moment, then joined him.
The loose, dry dust caved back in almost as fast as they could remove it. After a frustrating start, Alexei grabbed a helmet from one of the dead crewmen. Using it as a shovel, he bailed dirt into the cab where Imogene shoved it out of the way.
The hole grew quickly at first, but slowed as they tunneled away from the hatch. All the spoils had to be hauled back, passed up into the crawler and dumped, scoop by laborious scoop.
Imogene’s arms grew tired, then began to ache. She was about to call some of the others to take a turn, when Alexei broke through.
“Go check the tent,” Imogene said. “We can dig the rest out later.”
The rabbit’s muffled cursing came across the comm, then, “Found it! And it looks okay. No damage.”
A bright orange bag appeared at the bottom of the hole, and Imogene hauled it up and passed it to the others in the main compartment. Bruce and Lauren unpacked the tent and got Victor and themselves inside, then inflated it. The rip-proof material puffed up like an ugly gray mushroom, filling half the crawler. The zippered airlock had a clear plastic door, and after a minute Bruce looked out and gave a thumbs up.
“We’re all set in here,” he said. “We’ll call if we need anything.”
He twisted off his helmet and his comm icon disappeared from Imogene’s heads-up display. Just as well—she’d dreaded hearing to the play-by-play anyhow. She glanced around the narrow confines of the Paladin, then down at Alexei, lying in the tunnel below the hatch.
“Well, I suppose we should keep digging,” she said. “Victor’s not gonna be up to any wriggling, and Fiona just plain wouldn’t fit.”
Alexei squirmed back into the hole. “Okay. You keep at it from this end. I’ll start outside with the shovel.”
By the time they cleared a large enough passage and climbed back up into the Paladin’s main compartment, Bruce had finished treating Victor.
Imogene’s stomach turned at the amount of blood pooled on the tent’s floor and spattering everything inside, but Victor’s pale gold chest still rose and fell. Lauren sat holding his hand, while Bruce crouched near the clear plastic airlock.
Swallowing both her nausea and concern, Imogene turned to Jack. “The tunnel’s as good as it’s going to get, Captain. What do we do from here?”
The wolf sat with his back against the wall. He looked around at the others and shook his head listlessly. “I...I’m sorry. I’m Missile Corps. Just a glorified tech. Maybe do some admin work now and then. This...” He gestured around the ruined Paladin. “I don’t know what to do about any of this.”
Imogene raised a hand to rub her forehead. It struck her helmet, and she lowered it again. “Well, we’ve got to get Victor help. Bruce, can he make it to the base?”
“No.” The stag was blunt. “He’s gone into hypovolemic shock. I managed to stop the bleeding, but I don’t want him moved unless it’s into an evac crawler.”
Imogene looked around the group. “So we need to go find help. Any volunteers?”
Alexei cleared his throat. “I think we should all go. Crap’s still falling from the sky, and in case you’ve forgotten, there’s a war going on outside.”
Lauren hadn’t moved from Victor’s side. “I’m staying with him.” Her tone dared anyone to disagree.
Bruce nodded. “Good enough. Keep him warm, and if he wakes up, don’t let him move.”
“Wait, you can’t go too.” Lauren’s eyes widened. “What if he starts bleeding again?”
“Apply pressure.” Bruce put his gauntlets back on as he spoke. “Tighten the tourniquet again if that doesn’t work. You took the basic aid courses, and to be honest, that’s all I can do for him now either. He should be okay for five or six hours, but he needs to get to a hospital.”
Bruce crawled into the tent’s airlock and zipped it shut behind him. “Besides, if the rescue team has to fight their way to the base, they’re gonna need me a hell of a lot more than Victor does.”
Imogene never planned to become a lunar commando. Not before her ex broke her heart and left her jobless.
Now she’d better learn fast.
A soldier’s first duty is to her country, but when black and white fade to dusty gray, the lines between friend and foe blur. As everything Imogene ever believed in crumbles, she must decide if some orders should never be obeyed.
Chapter nineteen, where bad turns to worse.
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